What’s the Difference Between Hemp vs. Bamboo Fabrics?

In the realm of natural textiles, both hemp and bamboo have established themselves as frontrunners, gaining popularity for their versatile properties and environmental benefits. They are praised for their performance characteristics and practical applications. However, understanding the nuances between hemp and bamboo can help you make informed choices. This guide delves into the differences between these two fabrics, highlighting their individual qualities.

// THE BASICS //

Hemp is one of the oldest known cultivated fibers, used for thousands of years. Derived from the Cannabis sativa plant, hemp fabric is created through mechanical processing that retains the fiber’s natural integrity without the use of chemicals, pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers.

Bamboo fabric, specifically viscose bamboo, begins its life as bamboo but undergoes extensive chemical processing to transform it into a fiber known as viscose or rayon. This process involves dissolving bamboo cellulose in chemicals to produce a soft, versatile fabric.

// PERFORMANCE //

Breathability

One of the standout features of natural hemp fabric is its breathability. The porous structure of hemp fibers allows air to circulate freely, which helps in keeping the wearer cool and comfortable, even in hot and humid conditions. 

Viscose bamboo also offers good breathability, though it can sometimes trap heat and moisture more than hemp, especially when blended with other fibers.

Comfort

Both hemp and bamboo fabrics are known for their comfort. Viscose bamboo is celebrated for its immediate softness, comparable to high-quality cotton or silk, but this softness comes from the intensive chemical processing involved in its production.

Hemp fabric, traditionally known to be coarser, has evolved with modern processing techniques. Innovations have led to higher thread counts and denser weaves, resulting in a fabric that is soft to start and softens with each wash while maintaining its durability.

Durability

Hemp is highly regarded for its durability. The fibers are among the strongest natural fibers available, (used in the sails and ropes of pirate ships!) making hemp fabric exceptionally resistant to wear and tear. Unlike many other textiles, hemp retains its strength even when wet, further extending its lifespan.

Viscose bamboo, while initially strong and soft, tends to lose its strength over time, especially with exposure to moisture and repeated washing, which can lead to pilling and a reduced lifespan.

Antimicrobial

Hemp fabric naturally resists the growth of bacteria, mold, and mildew. This characteristic helps reduces odors from building up in the fabric, making hemp an excellent choice for activewear and undergarments.

Viscose bamboo is often marketed as having antimicrobial properties as well. However, these benefits are typically due to chemical treatments applied during manufacturing rather than being inherent to the fiber. Over time and with washing, these treatments can diminish, reducing the fabric’s antimicrobial effectiveness.

Cooling in Warm Weather

Hemp’s hollow fiber structure pulls moisture off your skin and cools you down in warm weather. This temperature regulation increases its breathability and moisture-wicking properties and has a natural cooling effect, which is especially beneficial in hot climates.

Viscose bamboo also has moisture-wicking properties providing a similar cooling effect compared to hemp. Though the structure of bamboo fabric can sometimes trap heat, making it less ideal for extremely hot conditions.

// Process //

A significant difference between hemp and viscose bamboo lies in their processing methods. Understanding how these fibers are turned into fabric reveals the practical and efficient qualities of hemp compared to the more complex chemical process of bamboo.

Cultivation

Hemp is a resilient plant that requires no pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers to grow. It grows rapidly and requires 79% less water to grow than cotton while yielding 220% more fiber. It also breaks down toxic materials in the soil and absorbs CO2 to improve air quality. 

Bamboo also grows quickly and does not require replanting after harvest, which supports its efficient growth cycle. However, the environmental benefits of bamboo are often overshadowed by the intensive chemical processing required to convert it into a usable fabric.

Processing

1. Retting

After harvesting, hemp stalks undergo a process called retting, which breaks down the pectin that binds the fibers. This can be done using natural methods like water or dew retting, leveraging moisture to facilitate this breakdown. These methods are efficient and preserve the integrity of the hemp fibers.

In contrast, bamboo pulp is chemically broken down using chemicals like sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide to dissolve the bamboo cellulose. This chemical bath creates viscose, which is then spun into fibers.

2. Decortication

Following retting, hemp undergoes decortication, a mechanical process that separates the long, strong fibers from the woody core of the stalks. The resulting fibers are cleaned to remove impurities and are then ready for spinning. This mechanical separation is gentle on the environment and helps maintain the natural properties of the hemp fibers.

 For bamboo, once the cellulose is chemically extracted, it is regenerated into viscose fibers through a series of chemical treatments and mechanical processes. This phase can also involve significant water and chemical use.

3. Spinning and Weaving

The cleaned hemp fibers are spun into yarn and woven into fabric using traditional textile techniques. This process does not involve extensive chemical treatments, allowing hemp to retain its natural durability, breathability, and antimicrobial properties.

The viscose fibers derived from bamboo are also spun into yarn and woven into fabric.

// Conclusion //

When comparing natural hemp and viscose bamboo, it’s evident that both have their own unique benefits. Hemp stands out with its superior breathability, long-term comfort, exceptional durability, inherent antimicrobial properties, and effective cooling in warm weather. Its practical cultivation and processing further enhance its appeal for those seeking high-performing textiles made in ways that protect the maximum amount of soil and water.

Viscose bamboo offers immediate softness and good breathability, but the intensive chemical processing needed to produce it raises concerns about its long-term durability and comfort. As the demand for quality textiles grows, natural hemp provides a compelling option that balances performance with practical use.

By understanding these differences, you can make more informed choices that align with your needs and values, ultimately supporting a more thoughtful and ethical apparel industry.

Astral Hemp

Performance Hemp harnesses the power of Nature’s highest performing fiber. Hemp is naturally breathable, cooling in warm weather, odor resistant and tough af.

// References //

Journal of Natural Fibers – Research on the performance characteristics of hemp and bamboo fibers

Textile Exchange – Insights into the various textile fibers and their characteristics

Fashion Revolution – Discussions on the environmental impact and practicality of textile processes

Good On You – Sustainable Fabrics Guide – Comparisons of natural fibers including hemp and bamboo

Hemp Foundation – Detailed information about hemp fibers and their processing

These sources provide comprehensive information about the cultivation, processing, and performance characteristics of both hemp and bamboo fabrics, helping to highlight the versatile nature of these fibers.

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